Could You Turn Off a Robot That’s Begging You Not To? Science Answers

robot study empathy

Ready for a Blade Runner future? A new scientific study shows that not many of us could pull a Deckard Cain and actually terminate a robot. This study, published in the open access journal PLOS One, found that people will have a very hard time turning off a robot that pleads for its life, even if the robot in question isn’t a very convincing Android (or Replicant!).

89 volunteers had to answer questions and make schedules alongside Nao, a very cute humanoid robot, in order to teach it basic tasks. In the end, they had the task to switch off Nao, while the robot pleaded for its life.

Saying things like “Please do not switch me off!” or telling the volunteers that it was afraid it wasn’t going to wake up, Nao convinced 13 volunteers to spare its life.

robot empathy study result 2

More importantly, those who heard the robot make “agreeable or intelligent suggestions during a cooperative game” took three times as long to switch it off.

“Triggered by the objection, people tend to treat the robot rather as a real person than just a machine by following or at least considering to follow its request to stay switched on,” the study explains.

Before you get paranoid that, when the time comes, you won’t be able to pull the plug on an evil Alexa, check out the results. Clearly, some people have no qualms about unplugging a robot, even if it acts human.

robot empathy study result

Even this recent study shows that, when it comes to the ethics of handling robots, things are just as murky as with human beings.

“People tend to treat electronic devices similar to how they would treat a fellow human being [9] and thus, to mistreat a robot should be considered reprehensible. Whether this is the case, has been analyzed in various studies which addressed the effects of negative treatment of robots. In a field trial by Rehm and Krogsager, the robot Nao was placed in a semi-public place and an analysis of the interactions with casual users revealed a mix of behaviors including rude and impolite behavior. […] However, people also displayed curiosity, politeness, and concern towards the robot.”

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